Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The secret to math education in preschool

Here's an interesting article about math in preschool, Why Math Might be the Secret to School Success.  It refers to a recent study showing that math knowledge at the beginning of elementary school is the single most powerful predictor determining whether a student will graduate from high school and attend college.  That's a new one!  We usually hear about reading skills and the ability to delay gratification (The Marshmallow Test) as top indicators.

Perhaps it is actually a richness of experience while they are little that gives children an edge.  Math is an important component.  Math that is intentionally incorporated into activities like cooking, gathering, sorting, building and making patterns is crucial for developing brains as a base for deeper understanding.  You can read Pre K 3 teacher, JoAnn Bennett's blog  This Week! (scroll down to the Looking Deeper section) to learn about the math activities involved in block building, for example. 

Engaging, exciting and loud are the key elements with math for preschoolers.  “We want kids running around the classroom and bumping into mathematics at every turn.” says Doug Clements from U. Denver.  That sounds like fun!  And a lot like our Pre K 3's and 4's at Parker.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

It's all about the social stuff

I love this article about social learning by NPR's Anya Kamanetz, The Benefits of Teaching Lessons Learned in Preschool to Older Kids.  She reminds us that social learning is equal to academic learning in importance. 

In the public discourse, measuring students' success is all about testing for academic achievement.  Neuroscience research points to using additional measures, though.  The research shows that academic achievement holds little value without the social skills to communicate, self-regulate and empathize with others. "Kids who develop these skills early in life get better grades, are less susceptible to anxiety and depression and have healthier, more fulfilling relationships,” says Linda Lantieri, director of The Inner Resilience Program.

Emotional intelligence and respectful self-expression must be just as explicitly taught as problem-solving in math, or problem-finding in social studies.  As we seek academic challenges for students we can't neglect social challenges.

Programs we use at Parker like Responsive Classroom and mindfulness practices give us a common language and methods for helping children gain skills that are sometimes hard.  Second graders have an exquisite sense of fairness ("Sam budged in line - so I budged back") and sixth graders are finely attuned to social nuance ("My BFF doesn't agree with me on the project we're doing, so are we still friends?")  Helping students negotiate these choppy waters is not easy, and it takes a lot of time, but its essential.

In the block corner or at the robotics table, students need both intellectual and social skills to be successful.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Getting to a Deeper Level of Learning

Creating rich learning experiences that move young minds beyond factual memory - experiences that require them to dig deep for understanding - is a goal here at Parker.  On a walk through classrooms on Friday here are a few of the activities I saw that engendered deeper thinking:

4-5 students had divided into to teams to write several bills for the state legislature. They were deciding which bills were worthy of taking all the way through the legislative process in a mock session.  Bills and laws sponsored by Parker assembly members and senators that were deemed worthy: Recess Law, Medication Bill and Apple Pie Bill (new state dessert).

6th graders were launching toy cars around the room, making them crash.  They were testing Newton's laws of force and motion by sending one car faster than the one it hit, or at the same speed, and investigating and interpreting the results.  Next up: teams began brainstorming and drawing designs for Rube-Goldberg contraptions that would demonstrate five types of energy transfer.

Pre K students were baking pumpkin bread. "Cooking calls for identifying, sorting, ordering, measuring, counting, timing and observing, while at the same time providing exercise of small motor skills," teacher JoAnn Bennett says.  To find out about more the learning that happens while cooking together, scroll down in JoAnn's Pre K blog to the Looking Deeper section. 

Katarina Schwatrz in her article Beyond Knowing Facts: How Do We Create Rich Learning Experiences for All Students describes the competencies that define deeper learning:  mastering content, critical thinking, effective written and oral communication, collaboration, learning how to learn, and developing academic mindsets.

Deeper learning is a crucial component for developing curiosity, passion and confidence.  Plus, it's just so fun!

Friday, November 7, 2014

The curious brain

"Curiosity really is one of the very intense and very basic impulses in humans. We should base education on this behavior."  Mananvi Singh, NPR

The questioning brain - wondering, asking, seeking - is the brain that remembers things.   When curiosity is piqued, the brain's pleasure centers light up and memory is heightened.  What's Going on Inside the Brain of a Curious Child, an article in MindShift, is an interesting read that has implications inside and outside of classroom.  It appears that sparking curiosity in children actually gives their brains a shot of dopamine.  All the more reason to make school a place that invokes questioning and engages children's curiosity. No wonder Parker kids love to come to school every day! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Getting kids to sit still

I love the things that neuroscience re-teaches us.  In this great article called The right- and surprisingly wrong - ways to get children to sit still in class we learn that the ways at Parker that we get children to "sit still" are supported by science.

We have lots of recess every day.  It's outside, unless it's raining.  Kids roll down hills, explore in the woods, and are determined to master the monkey bars.  (As it turns out, running around, rolling down hills, and hanging upside down are essential activities for stimulating the inner ear - leading to development of balance.)

There's Muddy Boots Club, too, and sled-riding in winter.  We have 2,000 Steps for middle school - a time in the morning for walking and talking - recess, and an outdoor "brain break" every afternoon.

Founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program, Angela Hanscom says, "All (that's) needed is time and practice to play with peers in the woods – in order to foster emotional, physical, and social development."

It is interesting that the things that children do naturally - rolling down hills, building giant block structures, or lying upside down on the furniture - are almost absent in traditional school settings.  By giving children time to do what they love, they can much better do what we adults need them to do (for at least a little part of the day) - sit still.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Passion for living

What a week at school!  Our treasured middle school visitors from St. Peter's School in Barcelona have been here all week, living with our host families.  They toured the capitol and the State Museum with 6-7's.  8th graders went to a Poe presentation by the Capital Rep.  On Wednesday the whole middle school went bowling after school - and dancing, too.  Thursday was a day at the Hudson River doing water quality testing - the cold and rain couldn't stop us!  2-3's and 6-7's were intrepid scientists, undeterred by the conditions.  This afternoon there is a soccer game and our St. Peter's friends are joining in.

Today was Robert C. Parker Day  - everyone performed at Assembly, including the new chorus, and our Barcelona friends expressed their thanks for a wonderful time.  This poem was written for the day and characterizes Bob Parker, former Head at Emma Willard School and an inspiring educator who died in 1986. It's a great way to end a week of learning, international friendship and fun.

 RCP Day Poem by Seth's Advisory

From tower with his trumpet playing
Wise words he was always saying
To rivers with his paddle rowing
The best example he was showing
On mountains to the top he’d climb
To him books were divine
Television he found boring
He preferred to learn by exploring
From students he expected the best
He wanted for them great success
In the countryside he would run
For him this challenge was fun
He showed great passion for living
Even today, he continues giving

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Novelty and challenge

Novelty and challenge are essential for a developing brain to continue learning.  So says Anya Kamenetz in a recent Mind Shift article Plumbing the Mysteries of the Teenage Brain.  This is true for all children, but in adolescents it is even more crucial to keep the level of challenge high to maintain students' interest.  The adolescent brain is primed to learn self-reliance through newness and a certain amount of risk-taking.  By putting students into many new situations in school they can gain self-reliance within the bounds of safety.

In a recent week of science for 6-7's, students explored the mysteries of combustion engines.  A retired engineer and friend of the school brought us 4 engines and 4 well-stocked tool boxes for this intriguing project.  He posed a scenario: A polar science station has lost all power. You must repair the engines so they can continue their work.

This hands-on study had a large dose of novelty and challenge and was a recipe for keen interest, motivation and fun.  Not to mention deeper understanding of engine mechanics, forces of motion, power and energy.  And using a spark plug gapper, feeler gauge, and torque wrench!  Sounds pretty self-reliant.

Intrinsic Motivation

Motivating kids to want to do their best, to give their all, is kind of tricky.  For most of us adults, the reward for good school work was a grade.  And maybe also a parent's promise of a dollar for A's on a report card, or perhaps the teacher would display the spelling tests for all to see.  You felt rewarded if yours was perfect (or humiliated if yours was not).

I guess the hope was then, as it is now in most schools, that the grades or the stickers or the treat would be a motivator for the short term, and that the habit of working hard would lead to internal motivation later.  But I'm not sure it works that way for many kids.

When new children come to Parker in about grade 3 and above, we often find that they are not used to being asked to stretch themselves or to do more than the minimum.  They have not felt the power of self-motivation - at least not in the classroom. 

As Linda Flanagan reports in the latest MindShift, "If you start kids the wrong way — say, by rewarding them with pizza — then their intrinsic motives will vanish."

So, how do we teach internal motivation? At Parker it is a very intentional process.  We give students choices that they appreciate: deciding on a book for literature circles or a topic for research.  We connect subjects like art, social studies, science and reading as when 4th graders prepare a presentation about honey bees. Or we challenge them in a STEM week to design and build a real bridge, because it's interesting and they get to experience the "why" of things.

We promote autonomy - children need to handle themselves in the classroom and the hallways with a minimum of adult-made rules.  And the children help develop the rules, because then they are vested in following them. 

We train children in critique.  They practice giving useful feedback and doing multiple drafts of a piece of work so that it reaches excellence.  Children also help to define what excellence looks like, because then they know what they are striving for. Holding your work up to the evaluation of peers is powerful stuff.  Children want to show their friends their best - and that is way more powerful and life-lasting than going for the grade.

One other big motivator for children is in the social element of learning:  children are naturally driven to be social.  Working with friends and classmates isn't always easy, but it is highly motivating and it reinforces learning.  That's why we stress cooperative teams and groups working together on projects or towards a mutual goal. 

Intrinsic motivation is probably the most useful trait that children can ever develop.  It can't be extracted from a grade.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bilingual education in Pre K at Parker

Being bilingual is a useful skill in a global world.  It benefits the brain, too, in ways we are just beginning to understand.  In the article Could Bilingual Education Mold Kids' Brains to Better Resist Distraction? the author explores some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. 

Last year at Parker we piloted a program of integrated Spanish in our preschool classes.  Spanish teacher, Erin Wallace, spent time several days a week speaking only in Spanish to our three and four-year-olds.  The program was so successful that this year we have hired Rosalba Santander, a native of Mexico and parent of two Parker alumni, to be the Spanish speaking assistant in the preschool every day.  She also is an assistant in K-1 Spanish class on Tuesday and Thursday.

Students (and teachers, too) are charmed by Rosalba's kind and gentle manner.  The little ones love to interact with her.  They seem to clearly understand what she says, and are beginning to answer in Spanish. 

Here is what Erin wrote about Integrated Spanish at Parker:

Based on research about how children acquire a second language, our Pre-K program provides:

  • Exposure to the language on a regular basis by known caregivers through a diverse variety of resources (books, songs, assembly, multiple speakers, modeling of other teachers/students learning)
  • Daily life integration through play in the language, negotiating play/feelings during class time, signs in the classroom, seeing the older students speak, quick conversations in the hall (“Hola, Erin!”)
  • Narration of activities such as cooking with the students, preparing for walks (put on your shoes, asking for help), while walking in the woods (pointing out objects, singing in Spanish, talking about the weather and what we find) 
  • Cultural integration is found in story choice, song choice, music class, talking about holidays/weather/people in Spanish speaking countries, crafts (Pinatas are a good example)
  • Parental support (many of our parents seek resources to read with students and use internet games and travel to pique interest)    
As a result of their experience in preschool, kindergarten students have developed vocabulary and grammar and are eager to speak Spanish.  They are excited to meet and sing with our Spanish visitors from St. Peter's School in October.  No doubt, we will uncover other benefits, as the research continues.

Here is a link to Erin's blog about Spanish classes at Parker: http://www.parker-spanish.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The new pond

Everyone is loving the new pond.  It has been an exciting setting for science classes in almost every grade.  Students are observing how it is evolving, what creatures it is holding, the nearby insects and plants, animal tracks...

Today a group of 2-3's led me urgently (yet quietly!) to see a brilliant green frog peering out near the shore.  What a way to hook children's interest in science and the natural world.  And to think it's all right in our back yard! 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Looking closely at detail

"Critique" is an important feature of heightening students' motivation to achieve the best they are capable of.  Here's a great article that explains why kind, specific, and useful feedback from peers is so important, How Looking at Student Work Keeps Kids and Teachers on Track. The article quotes one of our favorite educators Ron Berger, author of two books that guide us at Parker, A Culture of Quality and An Ethic of Excellence.

An important element of critique is noticing specific details.  That's another skill that students practice at Parker.  Teaching students how to observe closely - to notice details - helps them in every area of study. 

This YouTube video, Austin's Butterfly, explains the process of critique in a wonderful way.  You can see how students at any level and in any context, could use the feedback of their peers, and the ability to observe details, to produce something of excellence.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The magic learning zone

Second and third graders, a typically wiggly and talkative lot, scattered themselves across the field and crouched in quiet concentration.  Clipboard and pencil in hand, each observed and drew what was before them - goldenrod at the edge of the meadow, the fence line by the pond, the edge of the school building silhouetted against the play yard.
Annie Murphy Paul in this terrific article, How the Power of Interest Drives Learning analyzes what factors spark students' deep absorption in study, and how to generate and extend it.  "The feelings that characterize interest are overwhelmingly positive: a sense of being energized and invigorated, captivated and enthralled," she writes.

Interest in the topic or task puts kids into a prime learning zone.  Watch the intense concentration when they try to program a LEGO robot to pick up a ball.  They'll beg to keep going, forget lunch, and keep on trying until they've got it.

I've watched Parker students in the zone: in third grade when a student wrote his fifth essay about the industrial era in Troy, and in middle school when a group used every extra minute to perfect a Rube Goldberg contraption to pour cat food into a bowl.  I see it in their absolute fascination at the pond exclaiming over frogs and wondering about new water creatures.  Or in the preparations for a Shakespeare performance.

Designing a curriculum that sparks interest and connects learning to what's meaningful is every Parker teacher's goal. When children are interested in the task, their motivation is sky high and there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Catch the first day buzz...

I love the first day of school!  The eager faces, the excited buzz.  All the possibilities of the wonderful year ahead. 

At our teacher days before school started we read two articles:  How a Bigger Purpose Can Motivate Students to Learn and The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry-Based Learning.  The first reminded us that students who want to make a difference in the world are highly motivated learners.  The second reinforced that students gain social maturity when they learn in a project-based setting. 

As the teachers talked to me about their goals for the year, both of the themes emerged.  Here are a few examples:
  • 7th graders will have a weekly STEM workshop for robotics and coding, animation with Google Sketch Up, and game design with Scratch and GameMaker.
  • In middle school health class, students will organize a Health Fair to educate the broader community about making healthy decisions and living healthy lifestyles.
  • Students in all grades will practice mindfulness habits.  Linda Lantieri, author of Building Emotional Intelligence will help build teachers' skills at a workshop in December.
  • In science classes students will practice specific habits of mind such as persisting, listening with empathy, and questioning.
  • 4-5's will work on designing an improved, discovery-centered play space for the North Playground by generating ideas, conducting an interest and feasibility survey, and researching costs and funding.
And that's just a sample of what's ahead!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Parker teachers are...

The biggest strength of a school, absolutely bar none, is the quality of the teachers.  At Parker we are blessed with an outstanding faculty of dedicated, energized, compassionate and smart teachers -  masters at their craft.

Our teachers have developed a set of criteria for what excellent teaching means at Parker.  They review it each summer as they set goals for the year.  Here is a link to the document that describes what our teachers strive for.  Criteria for Excellent Teaching at Parker

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is play-based learning?

When we talk about our school program as play-based it resonates with parents who want something different for their children than a testing-based school.  But I think they also get a bit nervous - is it "just play"?

Here is a great article by Katy Merrell, a school Head in Norfolk, Virginia, Pro-Active Parenting, The Power of Play-Based, Active Learning. She says, "too often the word ‘play’ makes parents apprehensive about what is taking place in the classroom, so it may help to think of it as Purposeful Learning (that is) Active (while kids are) Young (and young at heart)."

When children get the "Ah ha!" moment in a learning situation, it engages the neurotransmitters in the brain that imbed the memory.  A mind-numbing worksheet just doesn't have the same impact.  Exciting and engaging activities that pull children in, the kinds of things they view as play, are the ones that stick with them best.  Piquing and supporting children's curiosity creates optimal learning. 

For older children "playing" (exploring) with a microscope to see what's in pond water, or cutting and gluing as they figure out how to make a better wind turbine blade, feels like play - and that's what the teacher is aiming at.  Great teachers use play as the hook to help children push themselves to reach the highest of expectations.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Show what you know

The school year culminated with many different products of children's learning, from a rocket launch to thesis presentations, essays about Hindu deities, and a Mexican hat dance.  There were videos for marketing space tourism companies and Spanish cooking shows, animated autobiographies and an online newspaper, to name just a few.

Here are links to some of the creative ways that Parker kids showed what they know.

Two seventh graders' Spanish Cooking Video: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3ZHSv9J8VsjNmloRWxnTUN5NlU/edit

6-7's Marketing videos to promote space tourism (part of STEM week):  https://sites.google.com/site/mathwithshelli/home/stem-week-at-parker  (I love the edginess of Sky High and Cloud Space!)

6-7's on-line news: http://parkerpurples.wordpress.com/
and   http://parkergreens.wordpress.com/

8th grade thesis presentations: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/parkerschool  password: rcp123 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

School is a lot like summer camp

When children are interested in learning for learning's sake, you know something is going right in their schooling.  Rewarding students for taking intellectual risks helps them develop a mastery mindset, where motivation and engagement are high, and performance anxiety is low.  Kind of like summer camp.

This article in Mind Shift, What Schools Can Learn from Summer Camps hits the mark on something I like to think about: how at Parker we try to make school a lot like camp.  Camp is fun and spirited.  Kids pick things they are interested in: rockets, outdoor survival, LEGO robotics, cool chemistry, or cartooning to name just a few.  They sing together and play in the woods.  They bond with friends and counselors.  They love camp!

At its best, school is like that, too.  Exciting and interesting - a place where you can take on something you're not sure you can do.  Friendships are forged in the throes of shared experiences, working out conflicts, and when teams figure out how to work together.  Students find out that taking a risk has huge rewards, whether they are successful or not.

At Parker, we are so fortunate that the natural elements are in place: the creeks and woods, the pond and meadows.  We have developed a program that turns those features into benefits: capitalizing on the natural world to help children develop their tolerance for risk-taking, life-long curiosity and the courage and confidence to explore.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Head for the Day: Awesome: chocolate cake

We are Peyton and Jet, the Heads for the Day. The best parts of the day were chocolate cake at Alexis Diner, disco dance at Assembly, putting sticky notes all over the place, pulling the fire alarm, and handing out Popsicles to the WHOLE SCHOOL AT AN EXTRA RECESS!  Alexis Diner is really, really good! I hope we can be Head for the Day next year!!!!!!!

~ Guest Bloggers Peyton and Jet, Heads for the Day

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Purposeful action in action

4-5's took their show on the road last week.  Their Bee Show that is.  They had prepared a thoughtful and beautiful presentation about honey bees, bee keeping, threats to honey bees, and more.  After a presentation here at school, they perfected their slides and talk and came up with a game, too.

The 4th and 5th graders at Doane Stuart were very receptive.  The waggle dance, part of the game wherein correctly answering bee questions earned each hive-team some pollen, was a big hit.  9th grader and Parker grad, Jack RP was on hand.  He originated the bee project at Parker. 

He loved seeing himself in the slide show - and gave the advice, "No matter if you are young or old, if you work hard, you can do anything!"

It was fantastic to see the kids take their learning beyond the classroom - purposeful action in action!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Can you teach creativity?

Racing to my office to show me a finished book or a robotic claw, smelling the spring flowers, building a rocket or a wind turbine, or enjoying dinner on the 8th grade Philadelphia trip, Parker students are always up to something interesting!

Can creativity be taught and assessed?  According to Grant Wiggins and Andrew Miller, it can!  Here's how... On Assessing Creativity  and  Yes, You Can.